Wednesday, October 30, 2013

SNRAS researchers find potential for biofuel crops and cheaper energy in Alaska

Despite large scale oil production in the state, energy costs in Alaska are extremely high, especially in remote areas, and many communities are eager to find cheaper ways to heat their homes and keep their lights on. Studies underway at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are exploring the potential for crops that can be grown sustainably by Alaska farmers and used by regional biorefineries to produce fuels and power. These studies are part of a multistate research project (WERA-1016) that is assessing bioenergy options across the western U.S. and providing leadership in the national push for affordable, domestic energy.
Amanda Byrd in the field.

Field trials are ongoing at several locations across the state to identify plants that are most suitable as biofuel crops and to determine best management practices for specific species and environmental conditions. Researchers have planted both native and nonnative woody plants (like willow, alder and poplar) and perennial grasses (including bromegrass, reed canary grass, wheatgrass and wildrye) to determine yield potential. So far, researchers have noted that introduced grass species (bromegrass and reed canary grass) seem to have higher yield potential than native grass species. Researchers have also reported that high yields from grasses require fairly high levels of nitrogen; since nitrogen is expensive in Alaska, this could be a major deterrent to production of grasses as bioenergy crops. Overall, yields for both woody plants and grasses have been fairly low to date. Researchers say this could be because most of the species used in the study are slow to establish or because of environmental limitations like short growing seasons, low soil temperature and poor soil moisture.

Though many of the same crops that are traditionally grown for forage for animals, erosion control or winter bedding can be used for biofuel production, biofuel production requires crop material that has a certain fiber composition and quality. Thus, growing biofuel crops requires a different approach than traditional farming. UAF’s biofuel crop management studies have focused on best planting and harvesting practices as well as optimum fertilizer methods, timing and rates. Researchers have found that cool, wet fall conditions in Alaska are not conducive to harvesting and field drying, however, leaving the crops in the field until spring is not likely to produce good harvests. Researchers have also noted that double-cut harvest regime (cuts in mid-summer and fall) yields are about the same as yields from a single-cut fall harvest for woody species.

These studies are still fairly new, and several more data years are needed before researchers can draw useful conclusions, however, some biofuel crop species are showing high yield potential when grown under optimum conditions. Ultimately, this research will help Alaska farmers and communities decide whether to invest in growing crops for biofuel production. Local biofuel production could give homeowners cheaper local energy options and could give farmers a chance to grow and profit from a new crop.
Stephen D. Sparrow in the field.

Federal support for this project is provided through USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture by the Multistate Research Fund established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary research on critical agricultural issues. Additional funds are provided by contracts and grants to participating scientists at the UAF.

Participating UAF researchers are Stephen D. Sparrow, Amanda Byrd, Mingchu Zhang, and Robert Van Veldhuizen.

This article is courtesy of Sara Delheimer, impact communications specialist, National Research Support Project 001, Colorado State University. Follow Delheimer on Twitter @MRFImpacts.
Areas where biofuels research is being conducted in Alaska.

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